After six years living in sleepy, safe and eternally sunny Singapore, it was a bit of shock to be presented with the opportunity to relocate to China, especially as we were expecting to move back to the UK.
I like to think of myself as a fairly adventurous type and reasonably robust in the face of upheaval and change. During my time in Singapore, I had travelled all over Asia, with and without kids, sometimes for business but mostly for pleasure, so was certainly not a novice to expat life or to Asia.
But the prospect of living in China was nevertheless a bit scary. Looking back I think this fear was based a combination of my own ignorance, media myths and a sensible concern for the health of my children. But never one to turn down the chance of a new adventure, I galvanized the excellent support network of the expat community, did the research and we made the decision to move.
Three years down the line, am I pleased we made the move?
Absolutely. Shanghai is fun, exciting, different, and it’s got the energy and edginess of a city that knows it is on the brink of big things. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, but it’s unlikely to get boring.
Medieval vs Chic and Modern?
Even a quick glance down the average side street in Shanghai gives you a glimpse of a life so vastly different from your own that your perspective on what is important gets a sharp reality check. As you head home, probably with your paid driver at the wheel, to your heated house with running water and several bathrooms, you will thank your lucky stars that you live the life you do.
And this is Shanghai, which, along with Beijing, is considered the most sophisticated of the major Chinese cities. Yet around the corner from that same street you can experience haute cuisine, a seriously trendy bar scene and spend a fortune in sophisticated shopping malls housing some of the biggest names in fashion. Living in Shanghai can be exhilarating and most people have a great time here.
It can also be frustrating, and there will be times when you have to grit your teeth to get through the day. With a partner who is likely to be working long hours and travelling a fair bit, you will be left to handle everything that falls under the umbrella of non-work. How hard can that be, I hear you ask yourself.
Ask the same question of someone who has just moved here and you could get through several mugs of Starbucks listening to them explain how buying and installing a light fixture took four days, or how buying a small piece of furniture left them screaming silently in the car because it is is invariably faulty or not quite what was promised.
Trying to get your front door intercom fixed may result in your internet connection being completely screwed up and trying to get curtains made may finally grind you down to heading straight to IKEA (yes, there is one here!) to buy the plain, ready-made, zero-hassle ones that you had previously sniffed at.
Finally, you overcome all obstacles and achieve your goal. Feeling a sense of triumph that is probably disproportionate to the task in hand, you call your spouse, who feels unmoved to share your joy.
Those examples sound extreme, but they are real and not atypical. After a while, everyone learns to laugh about the frustrations and lets them roll away; you will always have an intertaining story to tell over dinner. The general point is that at first you should expect it to take a long time to do practical things.
With a population of over 17 million people, Shanghai is a huge city, and trying to buy what you had previously thought of as an everyday item, or achieve something relatively simple when you have no idea where to go and don’t speak a word of Chinese, can lead you on many wild goose chases.
You can get pretty much everything you need in Shanghai: the tricky part is knowing where to go. But as time marches on, it all gets easier – your household jobs will eventually get done, and within a month or so you will have found where to buy the best food and sorted out a regular meat and fish delivery, a yoghurt man and worked out where to top up on your favourite make-up and moisturizer brands. Ask your neighbours and listen to the voices of experience.
Fellow Expats and Friends
The expat community here is very supportive. I found myself asking complete strangers where to buy bread and ended up organizing play dates for my kids. One thing you won’t struggle to do is to make friends. Even the toughest expat has experienced the initial disorientation on arrival, and there is a great sense of camaraderie amongst the non-working partners, or trailing spouses as we are so often (disparagingly) termed.
Shanghai is home to a lot of interesting people and there are lots of clubs and organizations to help you settle in. Some of the more popular social ones include Brits Abroad, the American Club Shanghai and the Australian Women's Social Group. Anyone can join these associations, it doesn’t matter where you are from.
The Community Centre is also popular and runs short courses on a whole range of varied topics including cultural orientation, trips to the local markets, Chinese medicine, calligraphy and finding your ideal career path. There are two centres, one in Pudong, DingXiang Lu, just next to the City Shop, and one in Puxi in Hongqiao at the Sun-Tec Medical Centre.
If you are interested in sports, most of the social organisations mentioned have informal sub-groups and there are other independent clubs. Also, many of the clubhouses in the larger expat housing compounds have good sporting facilities (swimming pool, tennis courts and gym) and most organise classes for residents and members. If your clubhouse is not running a class you want to do, go ahead and talk to the management and work with them to organise it.
There are various sporting organizations that run some excellent weekend and after school activities for children. Multi-Sport and Sport for Life are the most popular and run classes in Puxi and Pudong. You should also look at Active Kidz mainly in Puxi, and Dulwich Community Programmes, which uses the Dulwich School sporting facilities for a range of excellent programmes.
If you are stuck for ideas of what to do or where to meet people Time Out has a monthly magazine on Shanghai, which is full of information and ideas.
Where to Live: Which Side of the River?
Before I move on to a few of the fundamental issues that are probably running through your mind, I’ll give you my take on the Puxi (west of the river) or Pudong (east of the river) dilemma. One of your most important decisions will be where exactly to live in the sprawling mass that is Shanghai.
The starting point is to narrow it down to Puxi (west of the river) or Pudong (east of the river). In the same way that people who live in London are very clear about whether they prefer north or south of the river, Shanghai residents are very divided about the Puxi/Pudong debate.
Pudong is the newer side of the city and is developing fast. The spectacular high rise buildings close to the river give it a huge “wow-factor” – your visitors will probably be shocked by the sheer scale and modernity of the place. But, it doesn’t have the same charm as some parts of Puxi. If you live in Pudong you will probably go over to Puxi a couple of times a week, if not more, to shop, check out the best restaurants or just wander round absorbing the atmosphere.
The three main areas to consider are Jinqiao, Kangqiao and Lujiazui (or downtown Pudong). Jinqiao is a pleasant, popular area with a strong community feeling where it is safe to cycle around, which can feel wonderfully liberating as it frees you from having to rely on your driver. Dulwich College and Concordia International School (both GSGI schools) are both five to 10 minutes from the main housing compounds, and the Shanghai American School Pudong (also a GSGI school) is about 30 to 45 minutes away.
The journey to Lujiazui will take between 30 to 45 minutes depending on traffic. Getting over to the French Concession in Puxi can be very quick (30 minutes in light traffic) - many journey times have thankfully been slashed with the opening of some new major roads for the EXPO- or it can still take up to an hour in heavy traffic.
Kangqiao has several housing compounds, which give easy access (five to 15 minutes) to the British International School Shanghai (BISS) Pudong and Shanghai Community International School (SCIS) Pudong.
Getting to Lujiazui, and to Puxi can take anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour depending on traffic. Many people are very happy with the housing in Kangqiao but feel quite isolated because of the long journey times and the lack of anything appealing outside of the housing compounds.
Lujiazui is really downtown Pudong - think the Pearl Tower - and if you live here you will probably be living in an apartment, often with a spectacular riverview, and get a real sense of living in the city as opposed to Jinqiao and Kangqiao, which feel much more like suburbs.
Basically, pretty much all of the fun stuff is in Puxi, especially in the old French Concession area and around the Bund. If you live in Puxi, you will view Pudong as some peculiar extension of the city and are unlikely to ever need to go there. Both sides of the river have plus and minus points.
Many expats with families head for the south-west of the city to Gubei or Hongqiao, both of which are much more established expat communities than those in Pudong. Both areas give reasonable access to most of the international schools in Puxi (Yew Chung, the Western International School, Shanghai Community International School (SCIS), BISS Puxi and the Shanghai American School (a GSGI school).
It’s a very spread out area, so journey times will depend on exactly where you live but you are probably looking at a journey of between 20 to 45 minutes to get to the schools mentioned. Getting to the French Concession will take somewhere between 20 to 40 minutes, again depending on where exactly you live.
Living further into the centre of the city is also feasible, and will give you a very different, much less sanitized, experience of Shanghai. There are some apartment blocks with amenities (ie pool, gym) and some beautifully atmospheric lane houses and apartments, where your neighbours will most likely be Chinese.
You will be able to walk to top restaurants, funky cafes and bars, and browse the quirky boutiques that give the French Concession its peculiar charm. However, lengthy journeys to school mean many families with older kids tend to polarize to either side of the city closer to the international schools.
Ultimately, your decision is going to be influenced primarily by the location of schools and the location of the workplace. Most people do not want to inflict a long commute on their children (and by that I mean up to an hour on a school bus in hectic traffic) so opt to live close to the school their children attend, with the working spouse doing the commute.
Bear in mind that if you have a driver, that commute is nowhere near as unpleasant as most public transport heading into London. My husband’s working day starts from the time he gets into the car when he turns on his Blackberry and phone, and finishes when he is dropped off at home – the car becomes an extension of the office.
If the school and workplace are on the same side of the river, your choice of where to live should be a no-brainer. But there are plenty of families who manage perfectly well with the school and work places on opposite sides of the city.
Moving on to some of the issues you will encounter in day-to-day life in Shanghai, first up is food. Fear not – you can get most Western foods here, even if you have to shop around a bit. If you come on a look/see trip before you move, try to get a look in one of the various branches of City Shop to reassure yourself. The branches at the Shanghai Centre (often known as the Portman) in Puxi, in Pudong, at the bottom of the Citibank building in Lujiazui, and on Dingxiang Lu near Thumb Plaza (about 5 minutes from the main housing compounds in Jinqiao) are the most popular.
City Shop stocks mainly imported goods and, in spite of ridiculous prices (up to £9 for a box of cereal- yes, really!), is a favourite with expats. It’s not big, and it’s nowhere near Waitrose or Sainsbury standards, but once you have adjusted your expectations a little, you will find it has everything the average household needs. Lots of people also shop at Metro (again, various branches and much more reasonable prices) and Carrefour also looms large in the expat areas (again, reasonable prices but a very limited amount of imported goods).
Having said that, there is usually a steady stock of biscuits, kids snacks, cereals, tinned and frozen veg and decent wine, most of which are much cheaper than City Shop. The best buys are the frozen fish, frozen berries and ice cream, all of which can be of very questionable quality elsewhere in Shanghai.
A few of the larger compounds in Puxi and Pudong also host popular weekly farmers markets, where you can get good fruit, vegetables, meat, flowers, bread and imported frozen fish. Ask neighbours for times and locations. Most of the vendors will also deliver to your house, as will the numerous online companies.
There are also lots of smaller shops springing up which cater for expat tastes. Paul is a French bakery and café, which produces scrumptious cakes, bread and patisserie (several locations). Buy freshly baked bread and a range of deli items at Slice in Jinqiao, and the pastries and delicious bread at Baker & Spice on Anfu Lu (French Concession) are well worth the trip from Pudong to Puxi – it has been known for people to send their drivers to pick up breakfast... such is the desire for the almond croissants.
If you can’t be bothered to cook, Sherpa’s runs a delivery service from restaurants all over the city..
Health issues are a big concern for many people moving to China. The general approach amongst expats is to avoid local hospitals and clinics. People use private clinics for minor complaints and, assuming time permits, fly to Hong Kong, Singapore or back home for more serious conditions. There are several hospitals that have special wings catering only for foreigners if you need treatment locally.
The main providers of medical care that you should consider are World Link, Shanghai United Family Hospital and Shanghai East International Medical Clinic, but there are others.
Having a baby here is generally considered safe. You should also check that your employer has appropriate medical insurance in place for you and your family and that your vaccinations are up-to-date. Shanghai is not the cleanest place, but you will be probably be frequenting the cleaner parts of the city, and provided everyone maintains basic levels of hygiene, and fruit and vegetables are washed well in purified water, you should be fine.
Don’t Drink the Water
Before we moved here, I spent several sleepless nights worrying about the quality of the water, which is undrinkable. My understanding was (and actually still is) that it is full of heavy metals and other nasty chemicals that will stunt the development of my children and do all manner of unpleasant things to their tender brains and bodies, not to mention to my husband and me.
I haven’t done extensive research on this but the general wisdom is that you should not use tap water, even if it boiled. We use purified water for brushing teeth, cooking and drinking. Your home should be kitted out with a water dispenser, which will hold a 15-20 litre bottle of water. If you are moving from Western Europe or the US, this will feel like a big change, but it’s really not a problem and you will quickly adjust to wandering over to the water dispenser to fill your kettle. Watch in horror as visitors head straight for the tap! My children also very quickly learned not to use tap water, although they do at times treat the water dispenser as a huge water play toy.
Pollution is the other big health issue that concerns Shanghai residents. In fact, the city is not always covered in a permanent blanket of pollution and there are many days where the sky looks clear and the air feels fresh, especially in the autumn and spring when the weather is generally extremely pleasant (think light sweaters and sunglasses).
However, there are days when the pollution is obvious and there is a haze around taller buildings. Nobody really knows exactly how much pollution there is - it is hard to find definitive figures - and whether short-term exposure to the levels of pollution in Shanghai will cause any lasting damage. Most residents do not torment themselves by worrying about it.
The pollution was particularly bad in the year of mass building leading up to the Shanghai EXPO (held in May 2010). Now that much of the major construction has been completed, the city is starting to reap the benefits of a vastly improved road system, a huge number of additional Metro stations and what must be several thousand more trees planted. Shanghai is still a long way from looking spic and span but there have been significant improvements and watching the whole thing unfold has demonstrated how rapidly things change in China.
The banking system in China for foreigners can be frustrating, but like most things here, once you have adjusted your expectations, it is not a problem. You will use cash to pay for things much more frequently than you are used to. At first I felt like I was carrying round huge amounts to pay for bills/the ayi/the driver, but it’s just a question of changing your habits and thinking ahead a little. Most people open an account with a local bank (Bank of China and China Merchant Bank are popular) and use a foreign credit card for larger transactions.
To open an account you will need your passport and your residents permit. Local banks issue debit/ATM cards that you can use to pay electronically for most things, so that cuts down significantly on the amount of cash you need to carry around. Any transfer of money into the account from your overseas accounts will come into the local account in the currency of transfer.
You must then go into the bank with your passport and passbook to request that this be changed into RMB so you can draw on the account. For example, if you transfer GBP £10 000, the balance in your local account will be GBP £10,000. Only after you have asked for it to be changed into RMB will you be able to use that money in China.
To avoid lots of frustrating trips standing in queues at the bank, not to mention hefty bank charges, it is best to transfer a large amount of money into the account. Some people do use their overseas accounts and credit cards for everything, but this will incur significant bank charges and means that you will have to pay in cash for almost everything. Operating your finances this way may tide you over in the short term but doesn’t really make sense in the long term.
Be aware that foreigners can only exchange a limit of US $50,000 (or the equalivent in a different currency) per calendar year. Worryingly, it’s quite easy to get through this amount. The solution is for your spouse to open a second account, which gives you an additional US $50,000. However, operating the account can involve lots of annoying trips to the bank, so most people open a second account in their child’s name.
Cars and Drivers
Two people that will become key figures during your time in Shanghai will be your driver and your home help or ayi, which literally translates as “auntie”. The driving can be hair-raising at times and it takes a very gutsy expat to get behind the wheel of a car in Shanghai. Most expats do not opt to get a Chinese driving license (although they are fairly easy to get) and instead employ a driver. Your driver is unlikely to speak anything more than very basic English, but you can take this as an opportunity to learn a bit of Chinese and you will manage just fine through a combination of sign language, mime and a map.
There are numerous leasing companies and your employer or relocation agent should be able to give you advice on how to go about organizing a rental and driver. Or (and this is more likely) you/your spouse will have an angel for a PA and she will help you out. Because driving yourself around is generally deemed dangerous for expats, most companies include some kind of travel allowance in expat employee packages.
Be warned that understanding how the expenses relating to your car and driver are paid can be a bit of a minefield, and everyone seems to have a different payment structure. The best option, if you can get it, is that the company pays the whole lot ie rental of the car, driver’s salary, fuel, parking charges, overtime and driver’s meals. However, a lot of people end up shouldering some of the expenses themselves. Just make sure you understand what you are paying for and ask colleagues for advice.
If you have to rely on taxis, you will be adding a lot of stress to your day-to-day life. Older taxis do not have seat belts in the back seat and the standard of driving is somewhere along a range from bad to death-defying. The 4,000 new taxis introduced for the EXPO do have seat belts in the back seats, but the standard of driving is still pretty shocking.
For occasional use, taxis are fine but I personally never use one with the children, and whenever I do use one, the journey involves several involuntary braking reflexes.
As mentioned above, almost everyone has a full or part-time ayi. Some ayis will live in your house if you wish. Her duties will include cleaning, washing and ironing, helping to look after the children and maybe some cooking. It can also be handy to have a local around to deal with workmen to explain problems in the house (eg the faulty washing machine, leaking pipe etc.).
Domestic help in China is very cheap, but it can be difficult to find an ayi who speaks good English and many people find they have to spend some time educating their ayi about appropriate hygiene and Western household practices. This may change as the expat community becomes more established and ayis gain more experience. When you arrive in Shanghai and are established in your home, ask around for personal recommendations. There is a huge turnover of families coming and going and it is best to get a recommendation if you can.
Domestic workers from the Philippines used to be quite common, and were a good alternative for families who struggled with the language and cultural differences.
However, following the 2008 Olympics and now the 2010 EXPO, visas have been heavily restricted. Where the immigration authorities used to turn a blind eye, they are now strictly enforcing the rules and many Filpina ayis have either left or been refused re-entry.
Finally, there is the issue of communication. Many people move to Shanghai with good intentions of working hard to crack the language, and a few admirable souls do just that. The rest tend to take some kind of basic course, find that Chinese is really, really hard and stop the lessons or take themselves off to the Fabric Market/latest knock-off handbag place/the fake market to do some serious bargaining with their new skills. Or they struggle away only to find that their language skills have improved marginally but they could be the charades world champion.
Whatever your approach to learning the language, don’t feel too disheartened by your initial (and maybe lasting) inability to speak Chinese. You will get by just fine. If you get really stuck, there are translation services you can subscribe to, where you dial in, explain the situation and your needs to the translator who then communicates for you.
At times, your lack of language skills and lifestyle may make you feel as if you are living in a very privileged bubble and are not really experiencing Shanghai. But, as with all expat postings, it’s hard to get under the surface layer of a place unless you live there for many years or have a local spouse who can fast track you into the local culture. Don’t feel guilty about your situation.
And if you find yourself with spare time and want to get involved in community projects, there are lots of organizations and charities ready to welcome volunteers with open arms. Most of the international schools have some involvement with community projects,and charities and the Community Centers in Pudong and Puxi will also be able to give you information.There are lots of organizations to choose from and if you want to do some research on domestic charities before you arrive take a look at Care for Children (www.careforchildren.com), One Sky (www.onesky.org) and Shanghai Sunrise (www.shanghaisunrise.com).
All of the information above will give you a starting point for some of the key issues you are likely to encounter when moving here. Life will be different, but embracing the differences is a good way not to become overwhelmed by them. Shanghai is a wonderful city and this is an exciting time to be living in China. Come with a positive attitude and an open mind, and you will have a great time. Enjoy!